Step Away From That Leaf Blower!

How many reasons do you need to leave some leaves in your landscape?

As fall approaches, the leaf blowers have already started up in our neighborhood. I could write about these noisy, polluting machines. I could also tell you how important leaves are in the garden as a natural mulch and how they contribute to the organic matter in the soil. I’ll save those topics for another day. It’s what leaf blowers are designed to do that troubles me.

Remember the Three Little Pigs story? The big bad wolf (insert leaf blower) says “I’ll huff and I’ll puff till I blow your house down”.

Leaves provide habitat for so many organisms during the different stages of their lifecycles. Without a good layer of leaf litter left on the ground, we are severing so many of the connections in the food and plant web in our ecosystems. Leaves provide much-needed protection from cold temperatures during the winter months, as well as the fluctuating freeze-thaw cycles.

Wildlife gardeners want to provide food and habitat for all wildlife, right?
Consider a few of the many organisms that rely upon leaf litter and their relationship to others in the food web:


Gray Tree Frogs ~ Hyla species

Gray tree frogs overwinter under leaf litter. They are abundant in our woodland garden during the summer months where they perch on both shrubs and perennials waiting for their meal of beetles, flies, bugs and bees.

Tree Frogs help keep insect populations in balance.

Wood Frogs ~ Rana sylvatica

Wood frogs overwinter under leaf litter in woodlands. They travel from the woodlands to small ponds and wetlands where females lay eggs in the spring.

Wood frogs feed on beetles and crickets.

Listen to their chorus which I recorded this spring.

Wood Frogs are the prey of Great Blue Herons and other shoreland birds.

Some Salamander species also overwinter under leaf litter such as the Four-toed Salamander.


Goldenrod Soldier Beetles ~ Chauliognathus pensylvanicus

This late summer beetle visitor is an important pollinator of native perennials as they feed on pollen.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetles lay their eggs in leaf litter in the fall. The emerging larvae are food for spiders and beetles.



Black Damsel Bug ~ Nabicula subcoleoptrata

A voracious predator of other insects including aphids, true bugs, spider mites, and small caterpillars.

Adult Black Damsel Bugs overwinter as adults under leaf litter.


Hummingbird Clearwing Moth ~ Hemaris thysbe

A beautiful hovering, day-flying moth that nectars on flowers, and aids in the pollination of many of our native plants.

Their caterpillars feed on viburnums and other native shrubs providing food for birds rearing their young.

The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth pupa overwinter in a cocoon in the leaf litter.


Virginia Ctenucha Moth ~ Ctenucha virginica

Another interesting day flying moth that nectars on flowers and inadvertently pollinates them too.

The larva of this moth overwinter under leaf litter.


Thin Legged Wolf Spiders ~ Pardosa species

A ground dwelling spider that does not weave a web. It hunts insects in the leaf litter.

It is also the prey of Spider Wasps, who paralyze the spiders and drag them back to their ground nest to rear their young.

See photos of a spider wasp dragging a wolf spider to its nest here.


Bumble Bees ~ Bombus species

As summer winds down, all Bumble Bees die except for the mated queens. The queens hibernate for the winter under leaf litter, or in abandoned rodent holes.

The queen builds a nest in the spring, often in leaf litter where she lays eggs in the waxy cells.


Isabella Tiger Moth (Woolybear) ~ Pyrrharctia isabella

The Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar overwinters under leaf litter. One of the first caterpillars to emerge in the spring.

 Luna Moths

Read Pat Sutton’s post from yesterday about Luna Moths and leaf litter.


Mourning Cloak Butterfly ~ Nymphalis antiopa

Mourning Cloak Butterflies are one of the first butterflies to emerge in spring (as early as March in the north) because they overwinter as adults, seeking shelter under leaf litter or behind bark.



Round Lobed Hepatica ~ Hepatica americana
One of the first woodland spring ephemeral natives to flower, it relies upon a thick blanket of leaves to protect it from freezing during the winter. Tiny native bees, such as the small carpenter bee depend on these early flowering natives as a source of nectar.

Due to the introduction of non-native earthworms, the leaf litter in many deciduous woodlands is devoured and there is insufficient layers of duff.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are studying the decline in spring ephemerals due to earthworms reducing the amount of leaf litter. Read about the study here.

So how many reasons do you need to leave some leaves in your landscape?

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  1. says

    Heather, what a great message! There’s so much life in the leaf litter that if we could learn to leave the litter in place we would get to see so much more wildlife in our gardens. Our salamanders here are in a lot of trouble and we could help them out by leaving their habitat intact.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..In Memoriam, Irma McVey

  2. says

    I didn’t know that. And here I’ve been shredding my leaves and putting them in the compost bin. We’ll that makes things easier this fall. Thanks Heather, that’s a big eye opener and a huge help.
    Hal Mann recently posted..Monarch Update

      • says

        Heather, this is a great and timely reminder. In my yard, I employ a three-pronged approach to leaves:

        If they land on an impervious surface (i.e. sidewalk, alley, neighbor’s driveway :) then they get shredded and added to my compost pile.

        If they land on my lawn, they get shredded in place by my mulching mower and left to decompose.

        If they land anywhere else, they get left alone.

        Thankfully we have enough trees that there are more than enough leaves each Fall for multiple uses.
        Vincent Vizachero recently posted..Park(ing) Day 2011

        • says

          Great points! I have a small lawn that I rake leaves off of to areas where the leaves are thin. I love that you compost your neighbor’s leaves too.

  3. says

    This post and Pat Sutton’s yesterday comprise a very important message to those gardening for wildlife. Life in our gardens as in all of nature goes on year round. Much is out of sight, laying low in some low energy needs form, much like the plants themselves. The longer one gardens the more aware of this we become. I love the way wildlife blogs are spreading the experience of those of you that have been at it for awhile.
    My own taste run to appreciation of each season so leaving it in place gives each season in each place a look of its own.

  4. says

    Heather besides the fact that it is easier to leave the leaf litter and that it enriches the soil as it breaks down….a wonderful complement to Pat’s post yesterday…I do not have a leaf blower and never have. I love to leave the litter for all the critters and thx for pointing out the ones I didn’t even know about…
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Radiant

  5. says

    Oh, yeah a fellow leaf blower hater! Love learning about all the life that overwinters in leaves. I think I’ll be nonchalantly picking up some of the street side bags in my village so I have even more leaves. Then I’ll put out a sign that says stay here for free bugs and frogs – overwintering leaves here!
    thevioletfern recently posted..What’s Blooming

      • Tim Johnson says

        Saw several brown thrashers rummaging through the leaves on my lawn in early October here in Brooklyn Park, MN where I have put off any leaf management until this weekend (10/20). I feel bad about ruining their ecosystem but if we don’t power mulch those leaves on the lawn in the fall, it seems the grass will suffer next spring. But we definitely leave the leaves elsewhere in the natural areas of the yard and even grab any bagged leaves we find on the curbs on our block and spread them over the garden for mulch.

  6. says

    Thanks for the link to the research on earthworms. I live in a sugar-maple-dominated landscape with many spring ephemerals. I have known in general about detrimental effects of non-native invasive earthworms,and I hadn’t thought about the effect of missing leaf litter on those early spring pollinators. Great post.

  7. Ruthy says

    I’m new to this, so I hope my questions don’t seem silly.
    1. What is a mulching mower?
    2. I suppose then, that you clean up all the leaves in the spring. Yes?

    • says

      Hi Ruthy,
      A mulching mower chops up the leaves finely so that can decompose more quickly. It usually does not have an opening for the leaves to blow out the side so they remain under the mower while been chopped by the blade.

      No, I don’t clean up any leaves in my landscape – only those leaves that blow onto patios are collected and redistributed into my landscape. Leaves in my yard are the wood mulch alternative, and the decompose nicely over the summer, providing more organic matter into my planted areas.
      Heather Holm recently posted..Native Plant of the Week: Buttonbush ~ Cephalanthus occidentalis

  8. says


    This is an excellent post; thank you.

    I have always wondered what leaf removal does to the long-term health of the trees and the soil beneath them. After all, when humans aren’t around, those leaves break down into the soil near or under the trees, and contribute a great deal to the microbial ecosystems in that soil, ultimately enriching the soil and giving nutrients back to the trees. This is a cycle that has evolved for over one hundred million years.

    It has always perplexed me that people think of leaves as “trash” rather than valuable biomass.

  9. jennifer says

    Thank you for this information. How I wish it could replace all the advice on gardening websites and in gardening books that instruct one to clear everything away because leaves and other plant matter might harbor “pests and disease” and all the advise to allergy sufferers to get rid of leaves at all costs! (I say that as someone who is currently taking a beating from allergies, but leaf blowers do not help. :-) )

    • says

      Hi Jennifer,
      Yes it’s very common to hear that advice from traditional horticultural folks. The recommendations are for usually for fruit trees and commercial crops trying to reduce fungal infections. It has somehow been adopted by ‘regular’ gardeners and it stuck. In my opinion, the more we can mimic what would happen naturally in our landscapes the healthier the food web.
      Thanks for your comment.
      Heather Holm recently posted..Native Bee Spotlight: Mason Bees ~ Osmia spp.


  1. […] Leaves that fall on garden beds. Leave these alone. They will decompose naturally, providing nutrients and organic matter back to your soil. The thick cover will discourage annual weeds next Spring (saving you the cost of mulch) but your established native perennials and shrubs will grow right through them. Plus, many insects – including caterpillars – spend the winter in the shelter of these leaves. […]

  2. […] Leaves that fall on garden beds. Leave these alone. They will decompose naturally, providing nutrients and organic matter back to your soil. The thick cover will discourage annual weeds next spring (saving you the cost of mulch) but your established native perennials and shrubs will grow right through them. Plus, many insects – including caterpillars – spend the winter in the shelter of these leaves. […]

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